Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

While the reviews were mixed, with many comparisons made to Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of the best-selling Agatha Christie whodunit, I decided to approach the 2017 version with an open mind.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Instead, I was impressed with director Kenneth Branagh who also took on the role of Hercule Poirot. Donning an exotic mustache, Branagh delivers an excellent performance as the finicky Belgian detective, famous for solving everything from elaborate murder plots to uneven boiled eggs. The all-star cast includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, and Daisy Ridley.

The plot follows Poirot from Jerusalem to Istanbul to a lavish train ride on the Orient Express. After an unpleasant encounter with gangster Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), Poirot retires for the evening. That night, Poirot hears strange noises coming from Ratchett’s compartment and later witnesses a woman in a red kimono running down the hallway. An avalanche occurs, causing the train to derail, stranding the passengers.

The following morning, Poirot learns that Ratchett was stabbed to death sometime during the night. While early clues suggest that Ratchett was murdered by a lone man, Poirot believes the solution to the crime lies within a single locked carriage containing twelve first-class passengers. As Poirot conducts his interviews, he uncovers a series of connections and coincidences related to a tragic kidnapping case.

Faithful to Christie’s tale, the convoluted plot will keep you engaged right to the end. As will the antics of the other passengers, especially husband hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and exiled Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench).

Designer Alexandra Byrne captures the period beautifully with the lavish costumes, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos treats us to spectacular vistas of Jerusalem, Istanbul, and snow-covered mountain ranges…definitely Oscar-worthy achievements.

A stylish and suspenseful movie that will delight mystery lovers!


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Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

The opening credit—Based on real events mostly—sets the tone for this delightful tale of affection between an aging queen and a handsome Indian clerk.

Twenty years after delivering a captivating performance as a younger Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, Judi Dench returns to the role and succeeds in capturing all the nuances of the bored, sharp-tempered monarch. At least, that’s how Queen Victoria appears at the beginning of the film.

The arrival of Abdul Karim, portrayed by Bollywood star Ali Fazal, changes everything. Ignoring instructions, Abdul boldly makes eye contact and kisses the Queen’s feet at a dinner commemorating the Golden Jubilee. Flattered, Victoria returns his gaze and brings him into her service.

A friendship develops as Abdul, now called Munshi (teacher), meets regularly with Victoria and offers a form of escape from her tedious duties. Fascinated, Victoria listens as Abdul introduces her to the foods, languages, and customs of India. Hoping to keep Abdul in England, Victoria arranges for the arrival of his burqa-wearing wife and mother-in-law.

Her family and ministers are not amused by this relationship. Comments are whispered about “Munshi mania” and “the brown John Brown” as members of the household plot to rid themselves of the royal interloper.

While history suggests a maternal relationship, there appears to be lust in Victoria’s eyes. As for Abdul, his motivations are never fully revealed. Was he smitten or simply scheming to curry more favor?

A well-crafted film worthy of several Oscar nominations.


Movie Review: American Made

Sporting feathered hair and flashing his irresistible smile, Tom Cruise takes on the role of airline pilot Barry Seal in this action-comedy that celebrates the greed and corruption of the late 1970s through 1980s.

While Seal is a highly skilled airman, he is also reckless. To relieve his in-flight boredom, he flips a few switches that cause turbulence and endanger the lives of crew and passengers. On land, he sneaks Cuban cigars in his luggage.

His antics capture the attention of CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who offers Seal a lucrative monetary deal. As a contractor for the CIA, Seal will spy on and deliver guns to Latin American revolutionaries.

Assured that everything is legal, Seal embarks on his first mission and attracts the attention of drug cartel members, who persuade him to take on an additional courier role. Vaguely aware of the risks—“I do tend to leap before I look”—Seal becomes known as “the crazy gringo who always delivers.”

Seal makes an obscene amount of money that ends up in the most unlikely hiding places: closets, cupboards, car trunks, and underground crypts. All the while, his wary but devoted wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) busies herself with making babies, counting and spending money, and not asking too many questions.

Authentic news footage of several U.S. presidents, among them Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, remind us this film is based on a true story. Barry Seal existed, and he played all sides, running guns and drugs between the United States and Latin America.

An entertaining film with many thrilling moments and, of course, Tom Cruise.


Movie Review: Stronger

Based on the best-selling memoir by Jeff Bauman, this movie tells the story of the 28-year-old chicken roaster, who lost both legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and then went on to become a symbol of Boston Strong.

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the conflicted, often angry, young man, who was not ready to be anyone’s hero. His life and that of Erin Hurley, his on-again/off-again girlfriend, brilliantly played by Tatiana Maslany, were permanently changed by the horrific events of that April day.

While Jeff struggles with pain, Erin struggles with guilt as she tries to sort out her true feelings. Just how much did she owe an ex-boyfriend who had failed to keep his promises? And could she overlook the fact that the only time he did show up was at the marathon to cheer her on to victory?

Jeff’s family and friends, especially his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), provide much of the dark humor as they grapple with the aftermath of the accident and amputation. I found myself cringing each time Jeff fell or hit his head. In most cases, family and friends were nearby but otherwise occupied.

Director David Gordon Green chose not to sugar-coat any of Jeff’s challenges. Everyday activities—getting out of bed, using the bathroom, bathing—demonstrate the extent of Jeff’s limitations and pain. It wasn’t easy to watch Jeff move without legs and later struggle with artificial limbs. The special effects are impressive: Jake Gyllenhaal actually looks like he has no legs.

Green effectively uses flashbacks to provide glimpses into Jeff’s tortured state of mind. Raw scenes of the bombing and Jeff’s post-traumatic stress episodes remind us of the seriousness of the injuries. The slow but gradual emotional recovery provides several tear-jerking moments. My favorite scene–Sitting in his wheelchair, Jeff pitches a perfect first ball in a Red Sox game.

A must-see film!


Movie Review: The Glass Castle

Having read the novel when it was first published in 2005, I thought I was prepared for the family dysfunction. Instead, I found myself alternating between anger and horror as I watched two “parents”—brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts—abuse their four children.

Hours later, I’m still enraged by the cruelty and neglect: A father throwing his daughter into a pool over and over again, trying to teach her how to swim. A mother who won’t stop painting long enough to prepare lunch. A toddler lighting herself on fire after offering to cook wieners on the stove. Not surprising the children would want to leave this toxic environment.

Told from the perspective of second-born daughter Jeannette Watts, the film spans a 25-year period. Brie Larson stars as the adult Jeannette, a successful New York City gossip columnist, who is engaged to a financial advisor (Max Greenfield). Estranged from her parents, Jeannette cringes when she sees them garbage picking on the streets of Manhattan.

During the flashbacks, scene after scene shows the family traveling from town to town, state to state, attempting to outrun bill collectors and/or police constables. When Dad is sober, he is articulate and loving, teaching his children about science and architecture while working on a blueprint for a glass castle. As a mean, spiteful drunk, he spends the food money on alcohol, abandons his family for hours on end, and pimps his daughter.

Mom is an enabler, content to spend her days painting while ignoring her children’s needs. When Jeannette urges her to leave, she simply shrugs and follows her husband’s lead. Both parents try to pass off their miserable existence as a grand adventure.

I wore my “teacher” hat throughout most of the movie, hoping that a responsible adult would step in and rescue the children. But the cagey parents were good—too good—at keeping the family dysfunction a secret and outrunning any concerned bystanders.

I would have liked to have heard more from the other three siblings and seen more of the strong father-daughter connection described in the novel. In a recent interview, Jeannette Walls commented: “When times got really tough, Dad used to pull out the blueprints. He never did build us a big, fancy house, but I’ve come to realize that he gave me something much more valuable. And that is hope and a dream for the future. If a parent gives you that, then you’re lucky.”

Definitely worth seeing…I wouldn’t be too surprised if Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, and Brie Larson receive Oscar nominations for their outstanding performances.


Movie Review: The Big Sick

A different kind of romantic comedy, The Big Sick follows the courtship between a Pakistani comic (Kumail Nanjiani) and a graduate student (Zoe Kazan). Their one-night stand blossoms into a relationship that complicates Kumail’s life. Having chosen an unusual career direction, he doesn’t wish to further upset his traditional Muslim parents, who are busy arranging a suitable marriage for him. After discovering Kumail’s box of brides, Emily objects to being treated as a guilty secret and ends the relationship.

The trajectory of their lives changes when Emily comes down with a mysterious infection that leaves her in a medically-induced coma. At first hesitant, Kumail joins Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), at the hospital.

With Emily “asleep,” the focus of the movie switches to the relationships between Kumail and both sets of parents. Beth and Terry slowly warm up to Kumail while tensions mount with Kumail’s ebullient father (Anupam Kher) and his controlling mother (Adheel Akhtar).

The four supporting characters deliver strong performances, infusing humor into the storyline. Holly Hunter could easily garner an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

From the start, we know there will be a happily-ever-after. This romantic comedy is based on the real-life relationship between the co-writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. As photos of Kumail and the real Emily flashed over the closing credits, I found myself wondering about the inter-generational relationships. When did Kumail’s parents stop “ghosting” him and accepting Emily? Is a sequel in the works?

Hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, The Big Sick is a film worth seeing.


Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron boldly portrays Lorraine Broughton, a top-level spy for MI6, in an action-thriller that takes place in Berlin, on the eve of the Wall’s collapse in 1989. Her distinctive look—white-blonde hair, sleek outfits, fishnets, thigh-high boots, stilettos—and the ‘80s Europop soundtrack (99 Luftballoons, David Bowie, Der Kommissar) bring back memories of that eventful period in recent history.

From start to finish, the action never lets up as spies descend upon Berlin, determined to find an elusive list that could jeopardize the West’s entire intelligence operation. With all the single, double, and triple crosses, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the actual villain. And the dialogue is limited. But one constant prevails as Theron aims her gun, crunches bones, and punches faces: she is relentless and will not fail…a female James Bond.

While Theron dominates the film, the supporting cast of James McAvoy (Berlin station chief), John Goodman (CIA executive), and Sofia Boutella (French operative) add elements of intrigue and humor.

If you like action movies with brazen female protagonists and show-stopping fight scenes, you will enjoy Atomic Blonde.